Who knew that the future of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific could hinge on the Maldives?
The small island nation is getting some attention following Mike Pompeo’s stop there on his swing through South Asia this week. It’s shaping up to be a prime battleground for dominance over the Indian Ocean. For years, India and China have competed to bring the country within their respective orbits, but the election of a new president in 2018 has marked a sharp turn away from the island’s demand for Chinese investment and military cooperation.
Instead, this realignment has piqued the Trump administration’s interest in deepening ties — and the past two years have seen a number of agreements to spur the country’s development and deepen security cooperation. Make no mistake, the fate of this tiny country in the middle of the ocean has an outsized impact on the future of the strategic competition with China.
So it makes sense that the secretary of state chose to make a stop in the capital city of Male, where he held a press conference with the country’s foreign minister. They covered everything from the coronavirus to development assistance to security cooperation. What stands out, though, is Pompeo’s reply to a question on climate change:
You asked a question about whether the United States has interest in helping the Maldives with respect to the risk from changing weather patterns. Of course. Indeed, we have done that already. We have provided assistance; we’ll continue to do that for mitigation efforts and the like.
We continue to believe that the greatest way to combat any risk – whether it’s from changing weather patterns, or potentially rising seas – is human innovation and creativity. We’ve seen that time and time again in the United States; we think that’s the best solution for the entire world. We’re happy to be helping and be part of that here in the Maldives as well.
We’ve also done our fair share. There’s no nation that has reduced its climate and CO2 emissions in the way that the United States has over the last handful of years on a per-capita basis. We stand amongst industrialized nations as a beacon, and we did it not through state-driven, forced rulesets, but rather through creativity and innovation and good governance and a desire for the things that every human being desires: a safe environment, clean drinking water, and safe air.
It’s no secret that the Trump administration does not often make the case that it’s leading the charge on these issues. Although Pompeo didn’t utter the phrase “climate change” in this response, it’s clear what he’s getting at: The threats of changing weather patterns and rising seas requires creative solutions, and the United States has done much to lower its carbon emissions.
All of this actually tracks with what Pompeo has said about climate change in the recent past. During his confirmation hearing, he acknowledged a human component to climate change. And in a 2019 interview with the Washington Times, he said, “We will do the things necessary as the climate changes.” He also suggested that climate change is a national-security threat in another interview with the Wichita Eagle and the Kansas City Star.
Coming from a top Trump official, this might sound surprising, but it does make a lot of sense in view of the administration’s push to hold China accountable.
Courting island countries such as the Maldives requires a clear-eyed understanding of the threat posed by climate change. Any country that once famously held an underwater cabinet meeting to illustrate the emergency it faces will surely rely on those who offer it assistance in fighting this existential threat. This also goes for Kiribati. Climate politics is one factor (among many others) for the continued cooperation between Kiribati, a pacific island nation, and China. To shy away from talking about climate change is to forfeit one area of competition with the Chinese Communist Party.
The Chinese government has made sweeping rhetorical and diplomatic commitments to lower its carbon emissions, but only the exceedingly gullible and politically deluded could take its assurances seriously. Beijing’s record on these issues is indefensible, a point that the State Department has emphasized in recent months. Turning the United States into a global leader on climate change during a potential second Trump term wouldn’t be as far-fetched as it sounds — but, obviously, the president would need to be convinced of the benefits.
This would hardly require rejoining the Paris Agreement. And it’s also not to suggest that engaging Beijing on climate change, as a Biden administration would do, is a remotely good idea. In fact, doing so would be a disaster, likely requiring compromises on some key issues, such as U.S. support for Taiwan.
Pompeo shows that he understands the stakes of this aspect of the competition. Ceding climate leadership to Beijing just isn’t an option — but there’s still so much more work to be done.